The display of nudity in works of art elicited a powerful set of oppositional responses from the Byzantine viewer. In some contexts, it engendered a sense of shame for the fallen state of humanity, further tinged by negative associations with pagan idolatry. Conversely, nude images of the saints, martyrs, and the resurrected body of Christ symbolized the triumph of the spiritually purified body; hence nudity was also something to celebrate and honor. Context and decorum are the crux for our understanding of the employment of this representational device in works of Byzantine art.
Before delving further into this topic, one must understand what was considered “nude” to the Byzantines. The Greek word for nude is gumnos, from which the English word gym is derived; it defines both the state of being naked but also describes figures in a state of partial dress. The appearance of Christ upon the cross wearing only a loincloth would have been considered “nude” to a Byzantine (17.190.44). The reluctance to represent Christ’s “nude” body upon the cross can be better understood when one compares the ivory image with the earlier Staurotheke (17.190.715ab). Here Christ wears a collobium, a sleeveless garment, which obscures his body from view. This exemplifies the initial manner of representing the Crucifixion. Later, the theological importance of representing Christ‘s physical suffering and humiliating death on the cross led to the development of the former iconography.
There are, nevertheless, far more representations of seminudity than the completely revealed human form in Byzantine art. This aversion is notable because there is no Byzantine counterpart for the Western artistic tradition of erotic marginalia in illuminated manuscripts, or of the apotropaic architectural sculptures known as Sheela-na-Gigs, in which women ostentatiously reveal their vulva to the viewer.
Nudity in art does figure prominently during the earlier history of the Byzantine empire, which can be characterized as “Late Antiquity.” An interesting example is a silver casket representing Eros on a lion‘s skin (47.100.33). This depiction of the nude body of the sleeping god is markedly different from Hellenistic images of Eros, in which he is shown as a pudgy toddler (43.11.4). In the Byzantine example, the god appears as adolescent and although merely a youth, his invincible power is highlighted by the lion’s skin upon which he reclines, symbolizing that even brute strength is impotent against the power of love. This box probably held a woman’s toiletry or jewels, and its iconography complements this small object’s function involving the arts of seduction and love.
There were fewer contexts in which the nude could be used for biblical scenes, apart from the story of Adam and Eve and the drunkenness of Noah, although nude figures could and were often employed in biblical imagery as personifications, that is, anthropomorphic representations of places, states of being, or times of day, particularly in works with pronounced classicizing tendencies. A stream is personified as a semidressed male figure on the uppermost register of the Museum’s silver David and Goliath plate from the Karavás Hoard dated 629–30 (17.190.396). The use of personifications continued until the end of the Byzantine empire, and later examples can be found in the Vatican Library’s mid-tenth century Joshua Roll, and the Vatican Psalter, a copy of a Middle Byzantine prototype dated to about 1300.
Representations of the completely nude body are found on a number of Middle Byzantine ivory caskets. Interestingly, both males and females appear in equal measure, and many of these boxes include such scenes as the Rape of Europa and Ganymede, as well as images of Ares and Aphrodite. The images are playful and the inherent violence of the abductions is downplayed. The use of nudity on these objects could be justified by their classical themes, and these caskets are among the very few types of object in which genitalia are actually represented. Elsewhere, even in medical treatises, they are elided.
Although nudity was regarded as potentially dangerous to the spiritual well-being of the individual, it could also be seen as humorous. Performers known as cinaedi and grilloi entertained Byzantine audiences with low-brow and scatological humor. Several ivory boxes and sgraffito-ware bowls contain scenes of these entertainers. An ivory box with a panel representing an old, bearded man with a raised staff might be linked with such entertainers (17.190.237). This image looks very much like a visual parody of ancient Greek red-figure vase paintings in which a drunken husband returns home from a symposion and demands that the door of his home be unlocked, while a frightened maid servant or the figure’s wife fearfully starts to unlatch the door (37.11.19). Here the virile and potentially dangerous husband of antiquity is transformed into a comic elderly man, whose balding head, sagging belly, and extended buttocks highlight the comical aspects of the scene.
In the Byzantine world, representations of the nude would never fully shake their negative associations with classical antiquity, and their employment was somewhat limited. The relative rarity of nude representations during the Byzantine period may be a consequence of this inherent interplay of oppositional forces, pitting pre-Christian culture against a Christian worldview.